On Thursday, May 3, 2018, Hans Florine was climbing the Nose on El Capitan with his partner, Abe Shreve. The pair had started up the Big Stone around 6:00 am with the goal of climbing the near-3,000-foot route in a day.
Florine has held the speed record on the Nose at various times in his career—with Yuji Hirayama, Alex Honnold and Peter Croft, among others. He has climbed the route more than anyone else, a staggering 109 unique ascents. This was his first ascent of 2018. Shreve had climbed the Nose at least twice before, once in 15 hours along with Florine and another friend in 2017. Florine told Rock and Ice, “We were just going up, and predicted we’d do it in about 12 hours. Nothing too fast. Just casual going for us, a nice day out.”
Approximately 2,300 feet up the route, at about 1:40 pm, Florine was self-belaying as he aided up the Pancake Flake. Shreve was still following the Great Roof. Florine placed a nut and tested it; it seemed solid. When he weighted the piece to continue upward, it popped from the flaring placement where he had set it. Florine fell about 16 feet, at which point he “smashed” into Triangle Ledge. He then continued to fall another five feet before the rope came taut. A #1 Camalot caught his fall.
“I could see my left fibula bent at an angle,” Florine said. “I pulled out my phone and called 911 and said, ‘We need a rescue.’ Abe got me on belay shortly thereafter, and we lowered down two rope lengths to the Gray Bands.”
Florine also called Alex Honnold in addition to Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR).
“Alex was mini-traxioning the Changing Corners pitch on the Nose the same day,” Florine said. “I yelled for him first and then I called and left him a message. He was down by the East Ledges [descent] by the time he got the phone call. If it had been maybe an hour or so earlier he might have been up there and then him and Abe probably could have gotten me down without any other rescuers. But with just me and Abe, we didn’t do it ourselves because I was worried I might bang my leg against the wall and make it worse.”
While waiting for rescue in the Gray Bands, Shreve and Florine encountered a party of Japanese climbers who gave them a sleeping bag and a down jacket. Florine said he “probably would have gotten hypothermic if not for them.”
Around 7:00 pm, roughly five hours after Florine’s initial accident, YOSAR reached him via a rappel from the top of the granite monolith. They lowered in from the top because of high winds. YOSAR members strapped Florine into a litter and hoisted him to the top of El Capitan, which took about three hours. (“It took longer to hoist me out that half distance than it took me and Alex [Honnold] to climb the whole route,” Florine said, bemusedly.)
After rescuers began hauling Florine upward, Shreve rapped to Dolt tower, slept there that night, and continued to the ground the next morning.
Once on horizontal ground at the top, two medics, two nurses and eight additional YOSAR members cared for Florine throughout the night. A helicopter airlifted him back to the Valley floor at 7:30 am on Friday, May 4.
Florine sustained significant injuries to both legs and said that he has “a couple surgeries” ahead of him, at least. In his left leg, he suffered a pilon fracture of his tibia and fibula where the bones meet the rest of the ankle. On his right side, Florine shattered his calcaneus bone.
“It looks like a Rubik’s Cube,” he said, “broken up into six or more parts. So that will have to be fused together.”
Here’s a peek into my mind and what I was thinking in the middle of dealing with broken body parts, in the middle of El Cap. I don’t know what really to say other than just enjoy. It is a bit crazy now looking at it afterwards . #hansflorine #dohardthings @diablorockgym hey I’m going live on Facebook with Abraham Shreve right about now. His account: facebook.com/abrahamshreve
A post shared by Hans Florine (@hansflorine) on
The road ahead of the former Nose speed-record holder is long—recovery could be anywhere from three to 11 months. In the meantime, he plans on training his upper body hard (“Arms are going to get massive,” he said.)
“I don’t know exactly what afterward will look like,” Florine confessed, “but I’ve climbed with somebody who’s blind, someone who is deaf, someone missing a hand—so I have a pretty tough group of people I hang around with. It’s tough to say, ‘Oh my legs, I can’t go climbing.’ Maybe I’ll start masters swimming, I never did have good leg technique in swimming. Maybe I’ll take up an instrument.
“I would really, really like to go up the Nose again. I’ve done [El Capitain] 178 times. Kind of arbitrary, but I’d really like to reach 200 before I’m done.”
While no one factor directly led to Florine’s accident, several smaller things ultimately contributed to the end result.
For the sake of efficiency, Shreve and Florine did what is called short-fixing, which involves the leader at times belaying himself on the next pitch while the follower ascends and cleans the previous pitch. In short, once the leader reaches the end of a pitch, he builds an anchor, pulls up all the extra slack left in the system, fixes the line for the second to jug, and then begins leading the next pitch on self belay.
Florine estimates that he was approximately 70 to 80 feet out from the anchor when he placed the nut that would eventually pop. He explained, “It’s a flaring placement, would have been better to have an offset or tiny cam.” The pair had dropped their small cams earlier on the route when a gear sling was fumbled at an anchor. They decided they could finish the route anyway with just nuts. “I’ve placed nuts there [at the spot where the nut popped,]” Florine said, noting that sometimes cams blow out, too.
When Florine fell, he was guaranteed to fall double the distance to his last piece (as in any leader fall), plus whatever slack he had pulled through in his self belay system, plus rope stretch. The pair was climbing with a 70-meter rope. “If I had a 60 meter rope I would’ve been stopped right there [above Triangle Ledge],” said Florine, “but I had a 70 so I kept going. Or if I had jumped out away from the wall I would have missed the Triangle Ledge.”
This is one of those situations where the climbing itself was high risk. The clearest way to make this situation safer would have been for Florine and Shreve to climb every pitch with a traditional belay versus short-fixing with self-belays at times. But the climbers’ goal was a fast ascent and Florine knows the route better than anyone; the systems they chose are tried and true.
Beyond that, the easiest way to mitigate an accident like this on the Nose would obviously be to climb slower. But following that line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, we could prevent all climbing accidents by simply not climbing. Some sub-disciplines within our sport simply carry more risk, and those who practice them presumably know said risks and accept them.
There is also the question of continuing on with a less-than-ideal rack. The Nose was climbed before anyone had ever heard of nuts or stoppers, let alone of spring-loaded camming devices, so the dropped cams and a more anemic rack in an of itself may not have been a reason to bail on the route. But aid-climbing the route fast without any smaller-range active protection—all while still short-fixing—certainly upped the difficulty and seriousness.
Finally, while unquantifiable, other snafus beyond the dropped cams during the first half of the route could have been warning signs that the climbers were not on the top of their game that day. It was a “comedy of errors” early on, Florine remembered. “We got a #3 Camalot—brand new, ultralight—stuck in the Stovelegs. I also screwed up and left two biners and Abe’s approach shoes at Sickle Ledge in the cluster of stuff there.”
Ultimately though it comes down to how the cards were dealt. These were two highly capable and experienced climbers who knowingly set off on an objective that entails significant risk. Gear and gear placements are not infallible, and sometimes, simply, things don’t go as planned.
To read more about Florine’s multi-decade obsesion with speed climbing and the Nose, pick up a copy of his book On the Nose: A Lifelong Obsession with Yosemite’s Most Iconic Climb.